In Motherless Brooklyn, writer-director-star Edward Norton paints with brilliant neo-noir brush strokes, but he doesn’t know when to step back from the canvas. His labor of love sprawls over 144 minutes of runtime, with a host of characters, subplots, and long stretches of expositional dialogue. The cast is top-to-bottom solid, and the production has the feel of a 50s mystery down pat. Unfortunately, Motherless goes rudderless, and the result is a maddeningly uneven combo of stylish and saggy.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Lethem, the story focuses on Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton). Lionel is a talented private investigator who grapples with the tics and shouts of Tourette syndrome. His boss-mentor is Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a benevolent Sam Spade-type who once saved Lionel from the grip of a cruel orphanage. (Side note: Are there any orphanages in movies that aren’t cruel?) Frank’s working a big case, and he makes use of Lionel’s photographic memory during a confrontation with two thugs. This conversation turns ugly, and Frank gets killed in the ensuing melee. All Lionel has to go on is a conversation where he heard everything, but understood little.
This setup yields a mystery that eventually becomes sweeping in scope. Lionel untangles a complex web, involving a variety of desperate characters. Julia (Leslie Mann) is a dodgy widow with a hidden agenda. A beautiful social activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) unwittingly holds a big secret. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) manipulates the wheels and gears of NYC like a great and powerful Oz. Paul (Willem Dafoe), a shambling kook, determines to make his mark as a city planner at all costs.
All of these people occupy their own compartment within the film’s mystery. The film dedicates extended time to each character’s respective dilemmas. Everybody gets at least one overlong scene where they get to monologue about where they’ve come from and where they want to go in life. Unfortunately, these scenes bog the film’s second act in soft ground, and rob it of a good deal of tension. Good film noir feels ripe with unrelenting dread, but Motherless moves so slowly that parts of it become downright boring.
That’s really too bad, because this movie is a showcase for great acting. Norton delivers a world-class performance as Lionel, an intelligent man supremely frustrated by the twitches and obscenities that unspool from his own brain. Few actors pull off wild-eyed and wacky like Willem Dafoe, and he elevates what feels like a thin role. Mbatha-Raw plays her noir heroine with a mix of sweet and sturdy. Of all the talented players, only Baldwin’s casting feels too on the nose. He’s played this kind of urbane, pompous Titan of Industry so many times that I think it’s time to hang this jersey from the rafters.
Motherless Brooklyn has many moments where it will pull you into its orbit. Norton and his cohorts do a dynamite job capturing 50s Brooklyn. Daniel Pemberton’s music evokes the swaggering brass of Jerry Goldsmith’s work in Chinatown. Still, for every effective scene, we get several where the movie wanders into the weeds. With a little more editing, Motherless Brooklyn could’ve been a leaner, meaner film noir classic.
144 min. R.